Retail tech moves fast. But do retailers need help with the sprint, or the marathon?

I saw the huge amount of change rocking the retail ecosystem at two major events recently – SAP Hybris Live and the Sitecore Symposium, which saw the launch of Sitecore V9. It brought to mind those immortal Queen lyrics: I want it all and I want it now. Consumers are driving accelerated change in retail technology because they want things to be continually quicker, easier and ever-better value.

At the SAP Hybris event, the phrase ‘machine learning’ was thrown around so much I thought I was at a tech meetup with fellow geeks discussing the future of coding. Retailers are looking to apply massive computing power to find patterns that achieve everything from quicker call resolution to predictive profiling. This approach to personalisation enables retailers to know what you want to do and buy next, possibly before you do. More on this later.

Another popular theme at the event was augmented reality (AR). But with many retailers failing to use AR, it felt almost passé. In fact, the limited adoption of AR illustrates the bigger picture on many retailers’ response to innovative technologies.

Are they handling ‘the truths’?

Writing in Forbes recently, retail strategist Steve Dennis talks about some of the ‘emerging truths’ he discussed with retailers 10 years ago years that still haven’t been widely addressed. These truths included: “Data, organisation and process silos needed to be busted to provide an integrated (I like to call it ‘harmonised’) experience.”

Some retailers won’t invest in new technologies because of the lack of proven ROI. Others fear downtime and lost sales if they change something that negatively impacts the customer experience. But many aren’t investing because they’re reluctant to put a techy veneer over old systems that aren’t set up to deliver harmonised experiences.

I’m thinking here of brands where the in-store loyalty programme is completely separate from the online version, so customers who accrue points in-store can’t spend them online and vice versa. Or the online shopper who wonders why they have to go to a Post Office to return their item, rather than just drop it off at a store or, heaven forbid, ask the delivery agent to pick it up when they deliver the next item.

If your loyalty, inventory and logistics systems aren’t set up to provide what feel like fairly basic services, you’ll probably struggle to prioritise spending on new tech around the customer experience, including the likes of AR.

Decision-makers also know there isn’t a path to when new tech will stop being released – what good looks like today is different to tomorrow.

Partners for sprints and marathons

So, what can those of us working with retailers advise? Well, it’s not doing nothing, because this risks irrelevance. Customers have a lot of patience for brands they love, but if retailers don’t use technology to make experiences easier and more enjoyable now and over the next few years, this will force their currently loyal customers towards competitors.

The plethora of choices for retailers is not going to get easier. And with software being constantly bought to market with new advances, staying on top of developments is a challenge. Also, as was apparent from the SAP Hybris and Sitecore events, some technology is going to overlap more and more in the future, making choices even harder. For example, Sitecore is moving into the commerce space and SAP Hybris is moving faster into the content space.

I think the answer to all this has to be working with retailers on what they can do in a sprint, while helping them constantly review how they’re faring in the marathon.

This means whether they’re cloud, commerce or content specialists, retail consultants, digital agencies and the like need to help clients stay updated on the latest innovations to keep their longer-term strategies under review. Clients will also need support to isolate those areas where new tech can be applied to achieve shorter-term goals.

It’s going to be less about providing whole solutions on your own, because there’s very few single organisations who can fix everything. The emphasis will be more about recommending the ecosystem that can help retailers achieve their goals in the near-term and further into the future.


Machine learning – preventing the backlash

Finally, looking again at machine learning, retailers turn to their trusted partners to help harness the potential of mass personalisation in the right way. Machine learning will help retailers understand shopper behaviour, but past behaviour isn’t always an indication of future behaviour, particularly if consumers feel retailers are being too predictive. Applying machine learning without some common sense emotional filter may end up driving consumers to rebel against the conformity that machine learning may bring to the retail experience.

Shoppers may want it all and want it now, but they don’t want to be told what they want. They don’t see themselves as predictable and won’t be inclined to buy if their experience of personalisation makes them feel as if they are. Expert partners have a role in helping retailers portray customer experiences informed by machine learning positively and prevent any potential backlash.

For further reading on retail, read our scalability blog, where we look beyond phrases like ‘omni-channel journey’ and ‘seamless enablement’ and think about what effective scalability in retail really involves.


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